by Tim Harper
Maybe it’s a product of ever-deepening snow banks or the winter winds that threaten to snap your ears in two, but a quintessential Canadian debate has emerged here yet again.
Is our capital the worst among G7 capitals?
Given that the competition consists of Paris, Berlin, Rome, London, Tokyo and Washington, you wouldn’t think this would be much of a debate.
And it really isn’t, but the skirmish that has broken out on the pages of the city’s flagship newspaper, the Citizen, really boils down to another essential question – how bad is it here?
The author and columnist, Andrew Cohen, called the capital “soulless” in a piece entitled Ottawa is the Worst Capital City in the G7. “If New York is said to be a town without foreplay, Ottawa is a town without climax,” said Cohen. Here, he wrote, not much ever happens, and when it does, the earth doesn’t move.
That sparked a response from another columnist, Randall Denley, who defended this place with a piece adorned with the most Ottawa-ish headline ever: Ottawa is, in fact, not as terrible as you think. “Ottawa
is changing rapidly and for the better,” he told his readers.
This debate should be expanded beyond the city because we’re not discussing the merits of Estevan, Sask. This is our capital, our face to much of the world. That face will be very much on display next year,
our country’s 150th birthday.
There is a new government, with new energy and infrastructure money, in town. There should be some hope for this place.
I have moved here five times (don’t ask). I have owned homes here, my daughter was born here, I have actually, at times, put down roots in the capital tundra. So this is not a drive-by by someone who has just blown in from hated Toronto.
Over those years, the torpor in this town has never lifted. There has never been any urgency here.
Noted Ottawa architect Barry Padolsky says the city is risk-averse when it comes to development and has been victimized by federal indifference and three levels of government unable to seize opportunities to showcase the capital.
“We have not been very adventurous,” he told me. He properly points to the dignity of the Parliament Buildings and the Rideau Canal, but he would like to see more debate about the future of this town as 2017 approaches.
Some truths are unavoidable.
On its main thoroughfare, Wellington St., the dominant features are hard hats, construction cranes and scaffolding.
A debate has now broken out over the type of scaffolding needed in 2018 when renovations begin on the Centre Block.
Across the street, the former U.S. embassy has sat empty since 1999. It was to be a national portrait gallery, but Stephen Harper killed that and right now, it is nothing.
The former train station, across from the Chateau Laurier, is shuttered. All great cities have a downtown rail hub, but trains have not stopped there for 50 years. Instead, the building will house Senators during
Parliament renovations. Ottawa’s trains stop at a station perched on a windswept field in the middle of nowhere east of downtown.
Ottawa seems determined to prevent people from doing things. If you want to watch the NHL Senators, the arena is 30 kilometres from downtown.
The future of a huge tract of federally owned land, LeBreton Flats, is the subject of development proposals to be unveiled this month. Again. It has been the subject of debate for 50 years.
These proposals appear to include a new hockey arena and, it was reported Thursday, a new library.
Many years ago it sparked fierce debate over a proposed aquarium. It is today home to a condominium that looks like it is has been dropped on the moon’s surface.
Huge 18-wheelers still lumber through densely-populated tourist-friendly areas adjacent to the ByWard Market, clogging traffic and endangering the lives of pedestrians because there is no other route for them to get to and from Quebec.
Rideau Street, two minutes from Parliament Hill, is a mélange of holes in the ground where light rail transit stations will one day emerge, an antiseptic shopping mall, tattoo parlours and dollar stores.
Sparks Street, as Cohen notes, is celebrating 50 years of failure.
Even the prime minister’s home is falling apart.
Yet, there is hope. Much is invested in the Ottawa Centre MP and environment minister Catherine McKenna and Heritage Minister MÈlanie Joly.
LRT is (finally) coming to the capital. Museums are being updated and refurbished. A monstrous memorial to victims of communism has been shrunk and moved from a prime location the Conservatives wanted. McKenna is courting ideas for the former embassy, and there is that new federal-municipal library project.
Everyone wants some infrastructure money, but a priority should be the capital. It should be where we boldly celebrate this country. It, too often, has the ambience of an industrial mall.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services